From the Front Lines of COVID-19 to the Wake of Hurricane Laura, the Mobile USO Team Hit the Road in 2020

By Sandi Gohn

Between their patriotic paint jobs and their iconic USO flair, Mobile USO vehicles are easy to spot on the road and almost guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.

The Mobile USO provides support to service members at Malamute Drop Zone in Alaska in September 2020. | Photo credit Mobile USO

Designed to serve as “USO centers on wheels,” Mobile USO vehicles provide USO services to areas without brick-and-mortar USO centers, like disaster zones, remote training areas or isolated bases. If you’ve ever spotted a Mobile USO on the road, chances are it was headed into the field to support service members working at an isolated location, miles away from their friends and loved ones back home.

Over the last several years, the USO has expanded its mobile fleet to include three large R.V. units and five smaller sprinter vans, all custom-designed to provide entertainment, connectivity and a touch of home to military members and their families – no matter where their journey takes them.

Every year, the Mobile USO team travels far and wide to serve the expeditionary military population, and 2020 was no exception. From the plains of the Midwest, to the wilderness of central Alaska, Mobile USO vehicles traveled to 49 locations this year in the U.S. alone.

USO South Carolina and the Mobile USO team host a morale event for members of the  U.S. Coast Guard at Sector Charleston, South Carolina in April 2020. | Photo credit USO South Carolina

“We were busy, but it was also interesting,” said Courtney Sweeney, Mobile USO program director. “We were not able to use the interior of the vehicles like we were used to [due to COVID-19], so my teams had to get very creative in the field.”

“We’re trying to adapt, we’re trying to fit the needs of the military, because they’re ever-changing. I think this year in particular really proved how adaptable we are.”

While every stop was memorable for the nine staff members who serve on the Mobile USO team, here’s a look at a few of the ways the Mobile USO fleet supported the military in 2020:

Photo credit Mobile USO

Service members enjoy a game of Connect Four during deployment, thanks to the Mobile USO team.

For Military Responding to COVID-19 Pandemic, the Mobile USO is There

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring, much of the Mobile USO team’s efforts early this year were spent supporting service members activated to help in the nation’s fight against the virus.

A military police officer visits the Mobile USO at Camp Dodge in Johnston, Iowa. | Photo credit Spc. Zachary Zippe

“These are guys that typically are not activated outside of being deployed or during their annual training events,” Sweeny said. “They have been working non-stop in 2020, putting their civilian lives on hold to be called up for their nation. So, it’s been very important to show our support for them.”

At the height of the military’s COVID-19 response, Mobile USOs traveled more than 12 hours in a single day to deliver supplies to service members serving aboard the USNS Comfort in New York City. Other Mobile USO units deployed to states such as Ohio and Indiana, where they offered snacks and caffeinated beverages to service members who were working in the fight against COVID-19.

“The response from service members in the field was fantastic [when they saw the Mobile USO there to support them],” Sweeney said. In the months since the pandemic first hit the U.S., the Mobile USO team has served 35,180 service members, visited 49 locations, held 61 events and was boots-on-the-ground for 123 days in response to the military’s COVID-19 efforts.

“We supported about 25 states so far to-date and we’ll continue through the holidays,” Sweeney said.

During National Guard and Coast Guard Hurricane Responses, the Mobile USO Serves

Amid the world’s response to COVID-19, the U.S.’ annual hurricane season came and went with a fury, meaning the Mobile USO team once again hit the road.

In non-pandemic times, Mobile USO vehicles are typically sent to support National Guard members who are activated to serve in the wake of hurricanes, and 2020 was no different.

Photo credit USO photo

The Mobile USO prepares with help of service members ahead of Hurricane Laura.

In early September, when Hurricane Laura slammed into the Gulf Coast as a Category 4 storm, thousands of Texas and Louisiana National Guard members were activated to provide logistical support, distribute supplies and clear roads and bridges. As National Guard and Coast Guard members responded to Hurricane Laura, the USO coordinated with the military to support to service members working in the wake of the storm.

A Mobile USO vehicle provides respite for service members helping in the clean up effort for Hurricane Laura on Sept. 1, 2020. | Photo credit Mobile USO

At the peak of the military’s Hurricane Laura cleanup effort, the USO had three of its Mobile USO units on the ground with a fourth Mobile USO unit waiting on standby to join the efforts if needed. Together, the three units supported dozens of locations in the clean-up zone and served roughly 6,300 service members.

A few weeks later, after Hurricane Delta made landfall along the Gulf Coast, the Mobile USO was there too. Throughout the initial wave of the cleanup process, the USO had two Mobile USO units in Louisiana to support service members working in the wake of the storm.

Over the next several days, the two units traveled within the region to host events and served between 260-650 service members at each gathering.

“I think we can get to where our other teams can’t necessarily get, and when we get there, we’re going to make a larger impact than should we be in [a normal vehicle] because we really are that full center experience,” Sweeney said.

“That’s why we built the trucks the way we have. They have the lounges, they have the Wi-Fi for connectivity, the Xbox game stations, they really can relax and unplug wherever we go, which is great.”

A Mobile USO Sprinter’s Final Rendezvous in Alaska

Mobile USO center in Alaska. | Photo credit Mobile USO

As Mobile USO support ramped up in many parts of the U.S. during 2020, in Alaska, one blue Mobile USO sprinter van made its final trip through the last frontier. The vehicle first began serving the 49th state in May 2017, just as the USO began to increase its operations throughout Alaska.

“When we expanded as an organization into Alaska in general, we realized we can’t cover that much ground with [only brick-and-mortar centers,” Sweeney said.

The Mobile USO hosts a “Military Spouses’ Night Out” event at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska in September 2020. | Photo credit Mobile USO

So, the USO sent one of its then-brand new sprinter vehicles to the state.

Over the next three years, from May through September (when the weather was warm!), USO staff drove the vehicle thousands of miles to serve 17,000 military family members throughout the state. From military communities near Anchorage and Fairbanks, to isolated coastal camps, to training areas in between, Mobile USO staff went the distance to provide that touch of home to service members and their families.

Photo credit Mobile USO

The Mobile USO with service members on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska in July 2020.

“Seeing our teams make that effort to get to where they are, especially in those environments was really important,” Sweeney said. After a final summer of service in Alaska, this particular Mobile USO van took a long boat ride back to the lower 49, boarding a cargo ship this fall.

Even without the Mobile USO in Alaska, Sweeney stressed that the USO is 100% committed to serving the local military community through its Alaska center locations and expeditionary programming.

After all, even in remote locations like Alaska, the USO is always by their side.

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As the COVID-19 outbreak is evolving, the USO has pivoted resources across the entire global enterprise in an approach that helps care for military members and their families.

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